Intuitive Eating for Families

Ever heard of the anti-diet? Developed by two dieticians, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, intuitive eating is an evidence-based, mind-and-body health approach that asks you to tap into your body’s natural ability to alert you to feelings of hunger or satisfaction. While most traditional diets—and to be clear, intuitive eating isn’t really a diet but a lifestyle—require you to look at food as “good” or “bad,” intuitive eating considers all food as fair game. Essentially, you eat the foods you want and stop when you’re full.

Intuitive eating also asks people to move away from focusing on their ideal weight and how many calories the latest diet craze tells them to consume; instead, it emphasizes what your body’s cues are telling you it needs to be satisfied—both physically and mentally. For example, when we restrict certain foods, our bodies can trigger intense cravings, which can even lead to binge eating. 

In their 1995 book, Intuitive Eating (now in its fourth edition), Tribole and Resch share their 10 principles of this self-care eating framework (as they call it). Since publication there have been more than 100 studies that have verified the positive effects of intuitive eating. 

According to the authors, these 10 principles work by:

  1. Teaching you to be in tune with the physical sensations from within your body when your biological and psychological needs are met, and
  1. Removing the obstacles—which usually come from rules, beliefs, or thoughts—that stop you from being in tune with your body’s needs. 

Intuitive Eating Benefits for Children

Children have an innate ability to eat intuitively. Consider infants, for example. Babies have specific cues to alert us when they are hungry, from sucking on their hands and lip smacking to turning toward food with mouths open, and later pointing at or reaching for food. Yet, as children get older, many parents have anxiety over getting their kids to eat enough healthy foods as well as just eating enough, period.

In order to help your kids stay attuned to their natural hunger cues, parents should let go of the stress and desire to control, and instead allow your children to make decisions based off of their personal cues. Keep in mind that this isn’t a green light to let your children eat whatever they want, whenever they want. A parent’s job is to offer a variety of food and the child’s job is to choose how much to eat.

A parent’s job is to offer a variety of food and the child’s job is to choose how much to eat.

In Kindred Table, author Emily Weeks writes about the positive effect of intuitive eating for families. She explains, “As you learn to eat intuitively, you listen to and reconnect with your body’s hunger and fullness cues, learn to trust yourself to make decisions regarding what or how much to eat, reconnect to your body’s inner voice to determine the right amount of food for you, and practice being more mindful at mealtimes in a safe and supportive environment.”  

Getting Started as a Family

Plan Your Meals

Meal planning is one of the best ways to ensure your family is offered a well-balanced diet. While it’s important to offer nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, remember to not obsess over how much healthy food your kids consume. Allow them to eat as much or as little as they choose.

Offer a Variety of Foods

At mealtime, consider serving food family-style, so that your kids can choose what they’d like to eat. Many experts recommend introducing new foods alongside food your children already like. Taste buds can change, and with frequent exposure, both children and adults can learn to like foods that they may not have liked before.

Create a Flexible Routine

Children thrive on routines, but with intuitive eating, it’s important to be flexible. Schedule meals and snacks around the same time each day, while recognizing that it’s okay for your child to choose not to eat their snack or to want more food at dinner.  

Take Negotiations Off the Table

Simply put, don’t bargain with your kids in regard to eating. Saying things like, “take two more bites” or “finish your food or you can’t have dessert” doesn’t allow your child to identify if they’re satisfied or still hungry.  

Stop calling foods “good” or “bad”

When we put labels on food as “good” and “bad,” we could be making our kids feel like certain foods are off limits, which can then create unhealthy associations with food. Instead, focus on the benefits of the nutrients found in healthy food: improved memory and focus, more energy to play, etc.

Don’t Skimp on Flavor

Food should be enjoyable. Try offering the foods you want your kids to like in a variety of different ways. For vegetables, some children might prefer to eat it raw, steamed, cooked with butter and salt, or in a casserole.

Recognize Emotional Eating

Pay particular attention to signs that you or your kids are eating in response to emotions (boredom, sadness, fill-in-the-blank). Awareness is the first step in helping you find alternative ways to regulate how you’re feeling, without using food.  

Make Exercise Fun

Make a conscious effort to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. And remember: Just like food should be enjoyed, so too should exercise. Find activities you like to do, whether playing sports, going on hikes, bicycling, or any other activity that gets you to move more.  

Get Your Kids Involved

Help your kids get hands-on learning experience through gardening and cooking (see Ask the Nutritionist for tips on cooking with kids). Both are great ways to get your kids involved in making healthy choices. 

Refocusing your family’s mindset on what types and how much food to consume will take time. As you make the transition to intuitive eating with your family, give yourselves both time and grace to understand your thoughts (and misconceptions) about food. In her book, Weeks writes the goal of intuitive eating “should be to raise children as competent eaters who can trust themselves with food.” 

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This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of KIWI Magazine. Read the full issue here, or check out the latest from KIWI Magazine.